‘I knew the theatre in Butrinti had always been a museum and I thought, why can’t we change this theatre, this magnificent place, and create something new?’ In 1998, after taking part in several international theatre festivals and, Alfred Bouloti, a successful actor and stage manager at the Tirana National Theatre, made the decision to try and set up a festival based in the ancient theatre of Butrinti. In the south of the country, just an hour from Corfu by ferry, the imposing ancient citadel is partially surrounded by lake Butrint and would offer a spectacular setting for the festival. ‘I looked at the stage and of course, there were problems, particularly with the infrastructure, but we could do it. So with my friends from the Albanian theatre, we organised a project to set up a small international theatre festival. But at that time, it was simply not possible: foreigners would not come to Albania following the events of 1997 and the war in Kosovo in 1998.’
In 2000, however, they succeeded. ‘Of course I had to work hard and deal with people from the theatre who told me that it was a utopian idea and simply not feasible… Groups from Europe, from further a field, had terrible information about Albania. For example, two years ago the driver of a truck carrying the scenery for a group from Budapest wouldn’t cross the Greek border and was afraid to enter Albania. He was afraid for his truck, it was silly, but that’s the reality.’ The driver was eventually persuaded to enter and the festival is now in its fifth year. In September 2003, the Butrinti 2000 festival featured nine international companies from the Netherlands, Spain and Greece as well as Alexander Morfov’s Bulgarian production of the Tempest and Dan Puric’s company from Romania.
As a project led by actors and theatre producers, he faced the problems of a society unused to privately led initiatives. ‘In Tirana there are just four theatres (National Theatre, Variety, Academy and the Opera (with a large troupe) and the national circus as well. There are of course privately funded projects, but no institutions, no private theatres putting on shows as institutions with funding. There are projects and companies like OASIS, Le Petit Prince or çajupi (named after a 20th century Albanian poet) that do performances from time to time but, for example, its two years since çajupi last put on a show. From time to time a company finds funding from a foundation or an institution, or from a political party and gets a finance package, but that’s it, they put on a project a few shows. It’s a serious problem: there are no real theatres and troupes are forced to look for opportunities in the National Theatre or the Academy.’
Outside Tirana, the difficulties are even greater. Though there were about 25 municipal theatres in the major towns and cities of the country under communism, these are now severely under funded and some have closed. Nineteen of these put on satirical or variety performances when they can, but the audience for more serious drama is a problem: ‘It hangs over our thoughts like the sword of Damocles: September is certainly the end of the tourist season in Albania and for that reason the audience [at Butrinti2000] is not of the highest level. Many come from the town of Saranda, others come from Tirana of course, (I always invite a minimum of 50 artists from Tirana) and there are the people who come from the villages around Butrinti and Saranda. I guess that it’s normal, but it could be better. What’s happened is interesting though: at the first festival, the people who came saw foreign theatre in the open air ancient theatre in a language they couldn’t understand for the first time. They didn’t behave like a real theatre audience: they made jokes and gestures, mobile phones went off and it wasn’t good. But by the third or fourth festival you saw the people from the villages enter quietly and watch, even when they can’t understand the language of the show. It wasn’t me or anyone else who told them not to talk; it was the theatre that changed the mentality of the villagers. That was interesting, a miracle of the theatre…’
The Butrinti International Theatre Festival is now in its fifth year and with a budget of just $60 000 it has been remarkably successful. Raising money was tough, but with part sponsorship from foundations such as Pro-Helvetia and Soros they were able to raise the rest from the then Ministry of Culture Edi Rama who is also President of the festival. But there is a lack of continuity in a political culture that is very focussed on individual politicians and their clients. This year, for example, Bouloti still hasn’t seen the new Minister of Culture, Blendi Klossi. ‘It’s a bit dumb, but that is how it is here, and I always keep my spirits up that I will meet him, but I am not a political person. I need to meet the person responsible for signing 50% of the budget for the festival. If I don’t get that we wont manage anything.
‘Edi Rama is now mayor of Tirana and he has plenty to deal with, so I can’t bother him with the Butrinti festival. It is the Minister’s responsibility. It’s April, and slowly the summer is arriving and I’m in contact with plenty of groups but we must know for sure. We have to look at things well, and calculate everything with all the teams involved. You must be well organised and if you still don’t know if you have the budget, it’s not easy. But it’s like that in Albania. You can’t get going straight away.’
At it’s core, however, Butrinti 2000 is an idealistic project with long term practical benefits for the isolated south of the country. The idea that tourist from Corfu could jump on a boat, go and see a play in a lakeside amphitheatre, eat and return to their beds on the island is still someway off. The straights remain politically sensitive and there is a limit to the amount of legal traffic the Greek authorities will allow at night. Yianina, is a major town in Greece is just two hours away by road, but again the border crossing could double that in the busy period at the end of the summer. But Alfred Bouloti has a vision: ‘I had an idea about the heart of the festival and wanted to call it, Butrinti2000,‘The Balkan Dream’. That is the dream of living together without borders, like neighbours in the rest of Europe,’ he pauses, ‘but is it possible? In the Balkans there are too many legends and the problems of racism and nationalism die hard.’